South Park wins a round in water fight with Aurora

Brief by Central Staff

Water – July 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

Some of South Park’s groundwater is safe — at least for a while — from the City of Aurora after a water court judge ruled against the city.

Aurora had applied for a “conjunctive use plan” for the Sportsmen’s Ranch near Jefferson at the foot of Kenosha Pass.

Under that plan, during the occasional wet years, Aurora would put water in the aquifer to store it for withdrawal during dry years. In essence, it would have been an underground storage reservoir.

That has the benefit of eliminating evaporation losses, but there’s a problem with the accounting — when Aurora pumped water out, who could be sure it was taking out its own water, rather than someone else’s, to the detriment of South Park water users?

Aurora offered a computer simulation to show that the project wouldn’t hurt other water rights, but after lengthy hearings in Fairplay last summer, Judge Jonathan Hays ruled on June 1 that the computer model was “insufficiently reliable” to show that senior water rights holders would not be harmed.

(Such distrust of computer models seems to be a trend for Colorado water courts — in the early 1990s, AWDI used an elaborate computer model to show that its plan to take water from the Closed Basin of the San Luis Valley would not harm other users, and the judge denied that application.)

Aurora, a growing city of about 250,000 just east of Denver, has been searching throughout the mountains for water — it was one of the entities trying to build the Union Park project in Gunnison County.

Aurora’s Park County proposal was opposed by a variety of interests, like other cities that get water from South Park: Denver, Thornton, Englewood. The Colorado state engineer’s office also opposed it, fearing that it might disrupt Colorado’s “first in time, first in right” water doctrine.

Park County residents also taxed themselves to fight the project, but they had to form a new entity to do it after Aurora filed for the project in 1996.

The county commissioners refused to consider raising the mill levy to fund a defense of the South Park aquifer, as did the Upper South Platte Water Conservancy District (which also includes parts of Teller, Jefferson, Clear Creek, and Douglas counties).

So a new conservancy district — the Center of Colorado Water Conservancy District, with the same boundaries as Park County — was organized. With a levy of one mill throughout the county, it was able to raise about $200,000 a year for legal assistance and research in fighting off Aurora.

The battle was lead by the Park County Water Preservation Coalition, which publishes a newsletter and operates a web site:

But it may not be over — Aurora is considering an appeal, and a higher court could reverse the dismissal and order a full hearing.